Moving Toward Clarity as a New Head of School

At the Institute for New Heads (INH) last summer, Lick Wilmerding’s Head of School Eric Temple provided a clear blueprint for how to organize and frame the work for the year with an administrative team, and how to conduct entry conversations with teachers, staff, and trustees. 

For those of you who don’t know Eric, he is a very funny, approachable, detail-oriented head of school who operates with remarkable precision and clarity.  I have found his advice to be invaluable to me as I made my transition into the role as head of school at University Prep in Seattle, Washington, last fall. 

The Ambiguity List

Eric shared his approach for creating an ambiguity list with his administrative team. The exercise begins as a brainstorm around issues and topics that are ambiguous or unclear in the school. These can range from operational issues like attendance policies, lunch procedures, and technology issues to broader strategic and school identity questions.
In generating a list of these ambiguities, the head of school learns quickly about short- and long-term issues and priorities that need attention. And, in the process of this exercise, there is opportunity to consider the level of difficulty in resolving the ambiguity and ownership, in terms of which school leader will take on the responsibility for trying to resolve the ambiguity.
At the summer retreat with my administrative team, we jumped right into this exercise and came up with a list of 20 ambiguities. Sample issues included operational issues, such as how to better manage lunch accounts and how to support cross-divisional teachers; as well as more strategic questions surrounding school identity, summer programming, and a holistic view of the seven-year student experience at University Prep. As we moved through the first part of the year, we made headway on several of the ambiguities, and we have moved to discuss some ambiguities as we began our strategic planning process.
Each week at our administrative team meetings, we create space to discuss an ambiguity, sometimes to deepen our understanding of the issue, and sometimes to bring closure to the ambiguity with an agreed upon resolution. Some of the ambiguities remain, and as my assistant head of school has said, they turn into conditions to be managed instead of problems to be solved. 

The Entry Plan

In terms of an entry plan, Eric delivered an excellent template for new heads of school to employ. I have attempted to follow his entry plan model in an effort to learn about the history, culture, and values of University Prep.
Like many new heads of school, I met individually with each teacher, staff member, and trustee. In these conversations, I asked three questions:
  1. What are one or two things you love about University Prep;
  2. What are one or two things we can do better at University Prep; and
  3. What are one or two things I can do to be an effective leader at University Prep? 
Additionally, I met with each teacher and staff member in his or her individual workspaces, so I could better understand what people do at University Prep. These conversations proved to be invaluable to me, and have helped me identify major themes of school and community success and areas for improvement.
I played back my findings to faculty and staff in early November, and used that opportunity to start our strategic planning process. There was overwhelming sentiment that University Prep fosters enduring relationships between students and teachers; that the community is built and sustained on kindness; and that the mission, vision, and values affirm the daily life of the school. 
When it came to areas of improvement, there was considerable interest in exploring three areas: the changing notions of what it means to be an educator today, how to continue to serve and meet the needs of diverse learners, and the need to deepen the understanding and messaging around the school’s identity.

Strategic Planning

I heard a variety of opinions about the wisdom of jumping into strategic planning in the first year, as I sought advice from my network of heads, which I cultivated during my 20-plus years working in independent schools. Some heads discouraged it, while a few others urged me to go for it, as the opportunity to meet with an even larger number of constituents in the first year is one not to pass up.  I opted to move ahead with strategic planning and have valued the entire process as yet another way to learn deeply about my new school community. 
We held focus groups both on and off campus with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents.  Clear themes emerged in each conversation and the recommendations to the Board grew organically.
The focus groups echoed much of what I learned through my intake conversations and punctuated the framing of how to move forward into strategic planning and priorities for the future development of the school. We created five different subcommittees with more than 85 constituents to build out our understanding of the key issues. From there, we developed operational and strategic recommendations to present to the Board.  Our areas of focus were: 
  1. Growth and school size;
  2. The student profile;
  3. The student’s educational experience;
  4. Brand and communication; and
  5. Next generation learning.
Because the process grew from the ground up, I was able to learn even more about University Prep, and we developed a sound and comprehensive operational and strategic work plan for the school for the next five years. 
There is a Hopi saying, “One finger can’t lift a pebble.”  In my first year, I learned the power of crowd sourcing input, feedback, and recommendations for the future.


Beyond these individual conversations, Eric shared a detailed, systematic approach to tracking first-year interactions, ranging from school events, games, and performances, to parent gatherings, to alumni events, to class visitations, to carefully map creating a visible presence on campus and in the community. Keeping detailed records has helped me hold myself accountable for being visible and ensure that I am reaching out to all parts of our community.
The Institute for New Heads served as the ideal starting point to begin my new role as head of school.  Eric is a master teacher, as were the other facilitators, and the Institute blended a nice combination of the practical with the strategic, and devoted important time and attention to leadership development.

15-0706-MattLevinson-sm.pngMatt Levinson is head of school at University Prep (Washington).